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Paul Cox eschews historical characters this time around for seemingly ordinary people.

August 30, 2001|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Australian director Paul Cox would rather have a freewheeling conversation than merely beat the drum for his latest picture, in this case "Innocence," a poignant story of lovers reunited after nearly half a century. He's actually interested in what other people have to say on all kinds of subjects.

Early in his career Cox asked, "Why can't we be able to make films about what we really are, and how we feel?" In a sense Cox has devoted his life to trying to answer that question.

At 60, Cox, who came to Australia on a scholarship from his native Holland, is a comfortably rumpled man, a little stockier nowadays but with the same thick sheaf of hair and mustache. He has a gentle, sensitive presence befitting a filmmaker whose work is marked by compassion for people who don't quite fit in and who face defeat and rejection.

Occasionally, his characters are famous historical personages, such as Vincent Van Gogh, or Father Damien of Molokai's famous leper colony, or Nijinksy, the subject of an upcoming experimental film in which the fabled Russian dancer is played by no less than 32 men \o7 and\f7 women.

Yet some of his most memorable films have been about seemingly ordinary people who feel suffocated by convention--films like "Lonely Hearts," in which two middle-aged people who've lived their lives for others at last discover each other.

In 1992, Cox achieved a career high point with "A Woman's Tale," in which cancer-stricken, 75-year-old actress Sheila Florance, a stalwart of Australian stage and TV, played a caring woman of strength and independence dying of cancer. A week before her own death Florance won the Australian version of the best actress Oscar.

As he has grown older himself, Cox says with a sense of relief that "I finally see the summit, I finally feel at home with the medium that chose me." As he spoke he was sitting in his suite at one of Beverly Hills' chic, smaller hotels during a brief stopover in June.

Yet such an expression of serenity is deceptive, for those who've witnessed Cox's impassioned outbursts know how volatile he can be.

Indeed, Cox emerged on the international scene in 1984 with "My First Wife," which remains a brutally honest depiction of the painful, bitter breakup of a marriage and was drawn from his own experiences.

Cox does not shy away from cursing the travails of independent filmmaking, the evils of power-mad nitwit producers who ruin films with bad re-cuts, mindless and violent Hollywood blockbusters.

Turning momentarily to politics, he finds the Bush presidency "so crazy I don't even want to think about it." He admits to turning down a script out of hand because it was set in Texas.

He mourns the death of Krzysztof Kieslowski "as the last great poet of the cinema" but takes heart when he is reminded of the remarkable filmmakers emerging in Iran and in Asia, Taiwan in particular.

As a filmmaker who makes the kind of films that depend heavily upon reviews, Cox has reviled critics fearlessly yet is quick to say that Andrew Sarris saved his life when he not only got "Vincent" booked into New York's Film Forum but also began his review in the Village Voice by declaring it "the most profound exploration of an artist's soul ever to be put on film."

"Even lovely reviews pain me, because it means that for me the film is over," says Cox, a man who puts so much of himself into his pictures he hates to let go of them.

That may be also because it often takes so long for his films to come to fruition. From the time Cox drew his initial inspiration from a photograph he saw in Paris of an older couple holding hands and walking away, eight years passed before he was able to make "Innocence." He had to experience what he likes to call "illumination," little flashes of intuition. He wrote "Innocence" in three weeks while shooting in Canada the first dramatic vignette in Imax 3-D, "The Hidden Dimension" (1997). "The script came to me like an avalanche," he said.

Cox wrote it expressly for Julia Blake, an actress now in her 60s who appeared in supporting roles in several of his films but who he believed had "never realized her full powers" on the screen. "In only two films has she played lead roles."

Blake plays a woman who has been married for 45 years to a very good, perfectly decent, totally unreflective man (Terry Norris) who has taken her for granted. Then all of a sudden her first love (Charles Tingwell), who has been widowed 30 years, reenters her life.

"Julia has been able to summon up a whole lifetime of pain, fear and joy," says Cox, who shot a few flashbacks in Belgium, where he had received a prize of about $80,000 but wasn't allowed to take the money out of the country.

"The film has been wonderful for Charles Tingwell too. He's 76, has had a notable career but had never before played a lover. No one else could go, but he was glad to go to the Las Vegas Film Festival, where 'Innocence' was a big hit. Audiences everywhere seem to respond to it. In Montreal it won both the audience award and the grand prize."

For Cox the point of his film is simple enough: "You miss the main part of being alive unless you have loved."

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